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“I just felt so forgotten” – The impacts of digital exclusion

Diverse Cymru spoke with an individual who has been greatly impacted by the digital by default systems in place during the COVID-19 crisis. She is over 65, shielding and has experienced great inequalities. This piece details her experiences of digital exclusion and how it has impacted her life. This piece also forms solutions to address the barriers that she has faced. This is particularly important if Wales is to suffer from a second wave of COVID-19. No group should be left behind.

Barriers faced by the individual

A lack of offline information

“I just found the inequalities were vast. If you weren’t online, forget it.”

An ongoing theme in our discussion was the lack of information provided on services available. Before the pandemic, her information usually came from hubs. However, with the hubs closed, she was left in the dark. This resulted in a lack of knowledge on support for day-to-day things, such as the availability of prescription delivery and guidance on going outside.

She felt that that the lack of information was a real barrier to solving any problems that she, and others in her age group, were experiencing:

“…Just day-to-day, normal things like leaks, just nothing big, just every day [things] that we just don’t know how to cope with because we [would] have popped to the post office, we [would have] popped into the advisory place.”

Our participant found that trying to access information on the phone was impossible, as she was put on hold for long amounts of time. When she has been able to get through to people over the phone, she has often found that these employees were not trained on the issue. The employees had been re-deployed without the support that they needed to give sound advice to the public. She commented that as a result, her group of friends were all trying to help and support one another, but none of them had the information that they needed.

This lack of information had a major impact on access to services and has led to other negative impacts, these will be touched on below to highlight the severity of an online only culture.

However, the work of the third sector has been of some help. She detailed her friend’s experience of going into the city centre. Her friend is visually impaired and sought help from the Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB) who were able to assist in getting into contact with the transport services in Cardiff as well as managers of St David’s shopping centre. This allowed her friend to prepare for her visit into the city centre. This is a clear example of best practice. This type of communication and information services should be provided for a range of services to assist older people who are not online and cannot access general information.

Inability to access basic essentials

“I found it difficult to access any form of shopping… I think that was a huge inequality, because I am not all of my age group, but a lot of my age group, my close friends, we are not digitally smart and on the one hand we were told not to give your card to anybody.”

Despite having a shielding letter, and thus being entitled to online delivery slots, this individual could not access these essential services as she was not online. This was the same for other people her age. Another major issue was not being allocated a local volunteer at the beginning of COVID as well as the worries of giving her card details to people that she did not know. These issues, teamed with a lack of accessible and offline banking services during the pandemic, meant that she was going without basic items for some time.

“I was saying to myself, this is 2020, how am I going hungry? How am I looking for someone to buy me some shampoo or something, just basics?”

Therefore, there is a clear barrier in accessing basic essentials as a result of digital exclusion which has led to major impacts on human rights and dignity.

Stresses about finances

“I just didn’t know how to cope. Those normal bills you pay, nothing. And I didn’t see any information coming forward, all I got is “are you online?” “Can you look online?” No I am not.”

Our participant found a real lack of offline services to help her in paying her bills. She found that phoning the utility companies were of no use as she was on hold for long periods of time without any response. In the end, she gave up on phoning these companies as she accrued a large phone bill because of the wait times and simply couldn’t afford it.

The lack of offline services also led to financial worries. The individual detailed that despite having money in the bank, she could not access it as she usually accessed her funds using a cashpoint and did not trust anyone with her card. As a result, she was unable to pay her bills:

“I had the money in the bank but wasn’t allowed to access it and I started having red letters from the utilities. I though oh my gosh, and I have never had them. How do I go about paying this now? It was just another stress, on top of another stress, on top of another stress.”

Negative impacts on mental health

“We are in 2020. And that has really affected my mental health. If you think how far have we come and I am living like this?”

The participant experienced mental ill health as a result of the issues that digital exclusion presented to her. In particular, not being digitally connected has made her feel “really inadequate.” She commented that she feels judged when asking for things in the post. In addition, she said that she would love to be involved in various opportunities for engagement online, but has not been given the skills or knowledge to do so. As a result, she has felt even lonelier.

“I do get to crisis point where I think I just want to get out but where, where? Like a claustrophobic feeling.”

Isolation has made a range of issues hard to cope with, such as the impacts of the pandemic on her grandchildren. She has had nobody to turn to and has internalised these feelings of stress.

Feeling de-prioritised as an older person

“You think you are a pensioner, someone must know about you, no they don’t.”

A particular result of digital exclusion and has been feeling de-prioritised by service providers. She thought that there would be more contact to check in on older people like herself and answer any questions that she had. However, she found that this wasn’t the case.

In addition, she does not feel that any solutions or funding during the pandemic have positively impacted her age group. She felt that this was true of mental health service provision and steps to address digital exclusion. Our individual commented that she would love to get involved with everything online but nothing was in place to show her how to.

The participant’s solutions to these barriers

Our participant referenced a range of solutions that could help her overcome digital exclusion and the impacts that were associated with this issue. She feels that this would make her life a lot better if Wales is to experience a second wave.

1.    Provisions for accessing digital products and help in using it

The individual said that she would want greater knowledge on how to potentially be loaned an iPad, or have access to discounted products, and how to access a cheap Wi-Fi connection. In particular, she really wants to be taught how to use digital technology as she has a lot of time on her hands and the willingness to learn.

2.    Greater awareness and provision of offline information services

In order to address the lack of information that she has received on how to live well during the pandemic, our participant suggested integrated helplines with people who are trained in relevant issues that people are facing. Further, she felt it useful to have someone phone to update her with the basic information, such as the rule on public transport and any further updates. These services would need to be greatly promoted to people, particularly those who are shielding.

A major issue has been capacity amongst service providers. However, our participant felt that this could perhaps be resolved by re-training furloughed workers or unemployed people to carry out the roles within advice service helplines.

3.    Tailored mental health support

Evidence above has highlighted the mental health impacts of digital exclusion. As a result, she felt that there needed to be greater provision of mental health services, but also the need for mental health professionals to be trained to meet the needs of older people.

4.    Other tailored support

She also felt that it would be useful for service providers to undergo training to help ensure that providers understood the needs of older people.

Diverse Cymru Conclusions

This case study highlights the detrimental impacts of digital exclusion. This experience shows us why digital by default systems are not beneficial for a large section of our society. This is particularly problematic when schemes looking to tackle digital exclusion are not accessed by all individuals who need it most. Nevertheless, we should also be aware that not every person that is offline will want to go online, and service providers need to respect this choice. It is imperative that issues such as those detailed by our participant are tackled before a potential second wave.

Thus, Diverse Cymru recommend:

  • Service providers need to ensure they undertake rigorous impact assessments for their services, involving diverse individuals, such as older people, in the assessment process.
  • When considering which measures are needed during the pandemic, the mental health impacts and isolation experienced by people who are shielding or who have underlying health conditions, or risk factors, including race and age, must fully considered
  • Programmes which up-skill individuals, such as Digital Communities Wales, should include targeted campaigns to reach people who previously did not want to engage online.
  • Individualised, tailored programmes and support should be available to support individuals to do what they want to or need to do online. These must include targeted support for people whose first language is neither Welsh nor English, and disabled people.
  • As we recover from the pandemic face-to-face engagement and contact, telephone and textphone, and post must be retained. These are vital for people who are digitally excluded.
  • All engagement, services, and information must be promoted offline, in hard copy formats, to reach and involve digitally excluded people.
  • Local authorities and retailers need to make it easier for people who are shielding, are not online, and are apprehensive to give their card details to strangers, to access basic essentials.

Additionally, to address other impacts linked to digital exclusion:

  • Investment in mental health services is critical. Mental health services should be funded to the same level as physical health services.
  • Specialist mental health support and services are needed for all equality groups, including older people.
  • Comprehensive equality and diversity training is essential for all mental health support services.